Road-tripping the border villages of northern Greece

Tucked into Europe's Rhodopi mountains by the border dividing Greece and Bulgaria are a string of tiny settlements, the Pomak villages. I took a spin around these isolated towns on a research trip in Greece for @lonelyplanet

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  1. Borders pay no heed to where beauty begins and ends. That's why I find myself falling in love with regions, rather than countries: swathes of our planet that are characterised by a certain mountain range or charismatic valleys. I already knew and adored Bulgaria's mountainous south, so I was psyched to explore the other side of the border, in northern Greece.
  2. Enthusiasm alone won't power you up that hill. Driving in the mountains isn't without its complications, especially for an urbanite like me...
  3. My destinations, the Pomaks villages, don't get an awful lot of tourism. They don't get a lot of visitors full stop. Chatting to hotel staff and cafe owners in Xanthi, a large and bubbly city in Greek Thrace, I was given puzzled looks when I talked excitedly about taking a spin around the Pomak villages. The Pomaks are considered a people apart: a largely Muslim community strongly affiliated with the Turkish, while speaking their own dialect, Pomaks, a linguistic relative of Bulgarian. Confused yet?
  4. People in these villages certainly look astonished to see a hire car with a (conspicuously lost) foreign driver at the wheel.
  5. But unfriendly? Definitely not. In fact, the gaggle of elderly women who encouraged my narrow reversing around a corner after I made a wrong turn were positively enthusiastic. Like a group of cheerleaders, who burst into applause after I completed a narrow manoeuvre - thanks ladies!
  6. For travellers bold enough to head this way, the main attraction is the thermal baths in Thermes. This rocky region is well-known for thermally heated waters, and while you can't expect a five-star spa, you will be enjoying a soak right at the source.
  7. But for me, the real interest in taking a trip here is the glimpse into a side of life you might not expect to find in Greece. Some local schools teach in Turkish, cementing the Pomaks community's historic ties with Turkey. Minarets gleam from the valleys. But beyond the soaring views, there's impatience in the air. The Pomaks have endured a long struggle for recognition and many feel neglected and ignored by the government, something I'd wager is unlikely to improve any time soon, with the country's current economic woes. A good many feel their education and career lies in Turkey, rather than Greece. But these gorgeously located villages are home, and that's a strong pull.
  8. To learn more about the Pomaks, this article by Alexandra Tzavella is an excellent intro:  http://www.enetenglish.gr/?i=news.en.article&id=1816 
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